When we feel cognitive dissonance, we have to find a way to deal with the psychological tension. We have an arsenal of tools at our disposal to help us return to cognitive consistency.
Your favorite politician, the local mayor, for whom you campaigned and voted, is in trouble. You spent your own time and money convincing family, friends, and neighbors to vote for this candidate. You thought he was a family man, a man of values, somebody who could be trusted. Now, after two years in office, he’s been caught red-handed having an affair with an office staff member, who is barely older than his daughter. The news creates dissonance inside you. To alleviate the dissonance, you might react in any one or combination of the following ways:
*Denial–To shut out the dissonance, you deny there is a problem. You do this either by ignoring or demeaning the source of the information. You might also deliberately misperceive the confronting position.
“This is just the media going after him. He is doing a great job, so the opposing party is trying to smear his good name. This will all blow over when the facts come out. It’s all just a big misunderstanding.”
*Modify–You change your existing cognitions to achieve consistency. Most of the time this involves admitting you were wrong and making changes to remedy your errors.
“I can’t believe I voted for this guy. I feel swindled and taken advantage of. I really mistook him for a man of character. I need to apologize to my family and friends. I cannot support a man who does not honor his wedding vows.”
*Reframe–You change your understanding or interpretation of the meaning. This leads you to either modify your own thinking or devalue the importance of the whole matter, considering it unimportant altogether.
“The media said affair. Well, I’m sure he didn’t actually sleep with her. Maybe they’re just good friends. I’m sure his wife knew all about the whole thing. Even if they did have an affair, who doesn’t? Is it that big of deal?”
*Search–You are determined to find a flaw in the other side’s position, to discredit the source, and to seek social or evidentiary support for your own viewpoint. You might attempt to convince the source (if available) of his error. You might also try to convince others you did the right thing.
“I’ve heard about the reporter breaking this story. He’s blown things out of proportion before. All the friends I’ve talked to don’t think the story is true. In fact, this reporter has been against the mayor from the time he became a candidate. I’m going to call that reporter right now.”
*Separation–You separate the attitudes that are in conflict. This compartmentalizes your cognitions, making it easier for you to ignore or even forget the discrepancy. In your mind, what happens in one area of your life (or someone else’s) should not affect the other areas of your life.
“I voted for him and he is doing a great job. Inflation is low, unemployment is not a problem, and crime has been reduced. He is doing everything he said he would. It does not matter what he does in his private life. What matters is how he is doing his job. There is no bearing between an affair and his job performance.”
*Rationalization–You find excuses for why the inconsistency is acceptable. You change your expectations or try to alter what really happened. You also find reasons to justify your behavior or your opinions.
“Well, his wife is cold to him and she’s never around when he needs her. She’s never really supported him since he took office. After all, she still has her own business. Maybe this is just a marriage of convenience and this relationship is part of their agreement.”